Understanding Needs as Motivation Helps Us Thrive

An older man sits on a bench staring at the sea in contemplationFundamental human needs, which are common to us all, are the primary motivation for human action. And by acting in a way that meets our needs we increase our long term well-being. These facts often go unacknowledged and the omissions have negative implications for our ability to thrive. The link between needs and action is easy to identify when we look at our basic biological needs. I drink water because I value water as a means of sustenance. We curiously lose sight of this connection, however, when we examine psychological needs. Reasons for actions that are more psychological in nature are usually ascribed to our thoughts, beliefs and /or emotions. I joined the Army because it was my patriotic duty. I married her because I love her. A person may join the Army to meet his need for meaning and purpose while valuing patriotism as a strategy to accomplish this. As well, marriages occur to meet relationship needs with the partner being valued and if all goes well, love being felt. While the positive emotion we experience when we achieve our values is desirable, to confuse patriotism or love as the ultimate motivation for the action hinders our ability to meet our needs and thrive. Without needs as an anchor a person is set adrift whimsically changing values or chasing emotional states with no reference to what will meet his needs and increase his long term well-being.

A passage from the novel Infinite Jest underscores the dangers of not explicitly recognizing needs. “It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All Life is the same as citizens of the human state. The animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned over and over again.” The narrator views life as a tragic process of transcending the animating limitations of the self. He sees current beliefs as the animating limitations with new iterations needing to be repeatedly killed. This can easily lead to a life of unfulfilled drudgery consisting of purposeless striving. Once we understand that needs are our motivating force, it allows us to devise strategies to meet those needs. And in turn create positive feedback loops where refinements to strategy bring about increases in well-being as more effective ways are discovered to meet ones needs. Life can then be engaged in with ever increasing joy. A better understanding of needs is helpful however if we are to recognize needs as a keystone of motivation.

Needs are requirements of existence that if not met cause death or dysfunction. They evolved to help us meet our dual biological imperatives; to survive (avoid death) and to thrive (avoid dysfunction and replicate.) Needs demand attention and create motivation to be satisfied. And by satisfying them we not only increase our chances of survival but also unlock the potential for thriving. Our ancestors were more effective than others at meeting their needs allowing for us, their lucky progeny, to enjoy this thing called life.

Maslow popularized the theory of needs as a motivation for human action in the 1940’s with his famous hierarchy. The strict hierarchical view has since been re-conceptualized (by Max–Neff and others) but the underlying needs have been shown to be universal. Max-Neff, an economist, also introduced the idea of “satisfiers” (which I call values) to needs theory and more recently evolutionary psychologists have shuffled the importance of needs to make the groupings coincide more accurately with our evolutionary heritage. There is debate about how to group the needs into categories that reflect their relative importance but what is clear is that there are universal needs and they serve to help us survive and thrive. Loosely grouped, needs fall into seven categories: Sustenance, Protection, Social / Relationship, Leisure, Esteem, Autonomy and Meaning.

Needs do not follow a strict hierarchy. Basic sustenance and protection needs will take precedence if push comes to shove but in general all of our needs demand attention simultaneously. Since tension and anxiety are created when needs are not being met we use a majority of our available resources to satisfy them. It is up to the individual to weigh the factors in play during any particular situation to determine how to best meet their needs and the needs of others to maximize well-being. An understanding of objective human needs is critical during this evaluative process because we all have limited resources at our disposal. Knowing your needs and what strategies will meet those needs allows the person to efficiently choose an effective course of action. Not being explicitly aware what needs you are trying to fill precludes you from knowing which values to pursue in order to get them met and greatly reduces your changes of increasing your well-being. It is difficult to reach defined goals and infinitely more so to reach ill-defined ones.

Needs stand alone and exist regardless of the strategies (values) we use to obtain them. However there is an emotional content associated with both needs and values. Our emotions are signals to us about the current state of fulfillment of our needs and values. When we obtain a need we are not simply removing anxiety but replacing the anxiety with well- being and creating enduring positive emotions. When we achieve a value, whether it be telling the truth or waving the flag, we feel a more acute positive emotion. This is the type of happiness that Aristotle termed hedonistic; a transient mood type of happiness. And it is this immediate gratification that makes it tempting to chase values for their emotional impact regardless of their ability to objectively satisfy our needs. This also explains why it is possible to be transiently happy when you, for example, wear couture even if you are not increasing your long term well-being by doing so. These mistakes in valuation are common and you may have accepted values that are ineffective at meeting your needs. In short, our emotional intensity varies in regard to a need or a value being met. Our values are therefore often mistakenly viewed as the cause of action because they are more immediately and intensely linked with emotion than needs.

Why are needs so seldom seriously discussed as the motivation for human action? As Marshall Rosenberg the founder of non-violent communication (a needs-centric approach to human interaction) says; it is much more difficult to control a person who is in touch with their needs. Our current hierarchical social structures, which were implemented with the rise of agriculture, function more effectively with groups of submissive people being ruled (see The Downside of Agriculture). To control a person it is brutally effective to alienate him from his needs by substituting cultural value reinforced with the threat of moral condemnation and its associated negative emotional baggage as a motivation for action. Needs are objective, universal and keep us in touch with our humanity. Morality, however, can be changed on a whim to benefit those who invoke it while serving to alienate instead of integrate us with ourselves and others.

The goal of life is to thrive. The degree to which we do this is the degree to which we meet and manage our omnipresent needs. A first step in meeting needs is to identify them and understand that they are the ultimate drive for human action. Please see the needs list and develop a vocabulary of needs. It is the lexicon of personal freedom. Make an explicit link between your values and needs and determine if your values are effectively satisfying your needs. If your current set of values are not meeting your needs then change them so that they will. It is through the process of satisfying our human needs with rationally effective strategies that we begin to achieve well-being and thrive.

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